Submitted by egon  •  August 12, 2010

Interrogative use of perhaps/maybe

Is it technically incorrect to use “maybe” in an interrogative sentence? Or to make an indefinite statement (with “maybe” or “perhaps” in it) interrogative?

‘Maybe we just need to add some more salt?’ -- Is it incorrect to use a question mark here? Technically, I guess, it’s a statement, so it shouldn’t take a question mark, but in natural speech it can come across as a question (you’re *asking* if we should use more salt) and a question mark at the end can reflect this. But maybe that’s just plain wrong? (← Like this.)

Actually, that’s not a great example... What I really want to know is whether or not it is always incorrect to use “maybe/perhaps” interrogatively in formal written English.

Any thoughts?

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Yes. It's not ever going to work for formal English. If you were writing it, and you meant it interrogatively, it would have a question mark, but you would not ever use it formally.

I don't know if there's a description that explains that. At first I thought it would be a sentence fragment. A question like the example you used would be written as "Do we need to add some more salt, perhaps?" The "perhaps" or "maybe" is a modifier, and it's just got nothing to do with the sentence structure as a question.

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Perhaps and maybe are statements. PERHAPS the confusion comes because often when these statements are spoken, the speaker adds an inflection at the end that makes it sounds like a question, so when it's written, people try to add the same inflection, although there is really no need for it.

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I'll venture a guess that perhaps and maybe aren't often used as part of a properly formed question:

yes: "perhaps you'd like another."
yes: "perhaps you'd like another?" ("?" informally, to indicate inflection)
yes: "would you like another?"
no: "perhaps, would you like another?"

In the first and second examples (declarations), "perhaps" serves to make it clear that the speaker doesn't know the desire of the listener. Without it,the speaker is making an assumption that the listener definitely wants another. In the third and fourth examples, true questions, the speaker clearly expresses that he or she doesn't know the desire of the listener. But this is obvious, just because it's a question, so there's no need to add "perhaps". Just plain old "would you like another?" is clear and complete.

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It does not belong in formal, written English, only in dialogue.

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Yeah, sounds good. Thanks very much!

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